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Fruits of the loom

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

The Founding Director of one of Australia’s most successful arts organisations has been awarded a Doctor of Letters from the University of Melbourne. By Katherine Smith.

Founding Director of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Sue Walker, has been awarded a Doctor of Letters in Fine Art for her publication documenting the history of an enterprise that became one of Australia’s most successful arts organisations, and which through its work with contemporary artists brought the art of tapestry into the mainstream of Australia’s cultural life.

The Doctor of Letters is one of the University of Melbourne’s most prestigious higher degrees, and is more commonly awarded honoris causa (honorary) to recognise the contributions of high profile figures to public life.

In Dr Walker’s case, the degree was earned through original research and publication – one of around 100 Doctor of Letters degrees to have been earned rather than given in the University’s 150 year history, and one of only two in the last quarter century.

Dr Walker says it took her 10 years to research and document the material, which was later published with sumptuous illustrations by the Beagle Press under the title Artists’ Tapestries from Australia 1976-2005.

“During this time both my children got married and had children of their own, and although the research started as a PhD it later became the Litt D”, she says.

Dr Walker is the second person in her family to make a significant contribution to documenting developments in Australian art, following in the footsteps of her great uncle, William Moore, who she says she never knew, as he died just before she was born, but who was the very first writer to record the history of Australian Art in two volumes that were published in 1934 and are still quoted today. “I think the genes have come on through the family but this was not in my mind until I nearly finished the book.”

Written under the supervision of Professor Emeritus of Fine Art Margaret Manion, Artists’ Tapestries from Australia 1976-2005 tells the story of the foundation of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in the mid seventies. It was a time of major change which saw the revaluation of community and collaborative art practices, and also of craft-based art practices which had been closely associated with women.

Tapestry is a very old art form which has been used for centuries to depict significant moments from history, such as in the famous Bayeux Tapestry which is actually an embroidery, or to depict power and prestige, while also acting as décor and insulation in homes and public places. It saw a revival during the late nineteenth century when members of the pre-Raphaelite and arts and crafts movements reconnected with medieval style.

Atélier or workshop-based production is an important aspect of tapestry art – with William Morris and his followers idealising the artistry and fine skill of weavers and dyers, and the Victorian Tapestry Workshop drew from and expanded this tradition, with highly skilled weavers who were trained artists working in the South Melbourne studios on commissioned works.

“Many of the works produced by the workshop hang prominently in our public buildings and create focal points for ceremonial events, and indeed, by the late 80s the Workshop had become the largest provider of public art in the country,” says Dr Walker.

The University of Melbourne has three tapestries including its coat of arms and a John Olsen tapestry in the Zoology Department that were woven during Dr Walker’s years as Workshop Director.

Among the tapestries created by the Workshop are the monumental Boyd tapestry that hangs in the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra, based on a painting of forest on Boyd’s property at Shoalhaven in NSW, and a magnificent suite of tapestries based on the work of Roger Kemp that hang below the stained glass ceiling in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Dr Walker says the story of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop really runs parallel with the history of the visual arts in Australia over the last quarter of the twentieth century, involving over 300 contemporary Australian artists, as well as international artists. “In addition, the Workshop pioneered interaction with Aboriginal artists from early in its life, at the same time as it included leading contemporary white artists.”

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